How Sleep Deprivation Damages The Brain

Sleep deprivation can impair and damage the brain in a number of different ways.  This includes memory problems, impaired thinking and speaking in everyday life, risky decision-making, and even brain shrinkage.

Most of us deal with an occasional lack of sleep.  Often, this is due to late nights, stress, worry, too much screen time, or a range of other factors.  But few of us realize the significant effects lack of sleep can have on the brain.

Read on to find out about 11 key ways sleep deprivation impairs and even damages our brain.  Figure out how much sleep you actually need, and the benefits of a good night’s sleep.  Plus, learn more about the other effects sleep of deprivation on our bodies in general.

1. Inadequate Memory Retention

The hippocampus, a central area in the brain, plays a key role in memory retention while we are awake.  A day’s memory is then backed while we sleep at night, following the same activity pattern.  As a result, sleep is essential to memory retention, especially for long-term memories.

It follows then that lack of sleep can prevent memories from being firmly locked into the brain and able to be called on at a later time.  This can present a particular problem for students, who often need to learn a large amount of information and often study late into the night.

2. Creation Of False Memories

Lack of sleep can also affect accurate memory formation.

Once a brain is sleep-starved, it may fail to encode memories properly during waking hours.  This is due to the altered functioning of key parts of the brains involved in memory retention.

As a result, we are more likely to encode erroneous information into memories after a night without sleep.

The consequences of this can from unpleasant to disastrous – and we are likely to be none the wiser how we came to have these wrong memories!

3. Anger Issues

When we miss out on sleep, critical parts of our brain also stop communicating properly with each other.

For example, that part of the brain that produces spontaneous emotional responses (the Amygdala) is usually closely controlled by other parts of the brain.  This includes the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that is responsible for rational thinking and putting events into the proper context.

Without this control function, sleep-deprived people are more susceptible to strong emotions such as anger.  This can affect key relationships, both privately and in business.

4. Impaired Wit

Loss of sleep also impairs general cognitive (thinking) processes.

Have you ever been in a situation where you have lost the ability to think on your feet and the words coming out of your mouth just does do not seem to make sense?  Lack of sleep might just be the cause of this problem.

5. Slurred Speech

When we miss out on sleep, we seem to have a greater tendency to slur our speech.  This is connected with the reduced functioning of the temporal lobe, that part of our brains just above our ears.

The temporal lobes are responsible for interpreting sounds and creating convincing verbal responses.  People might think you have had a tiple too many – when it was just insufficient sleep.

6. Hallucinations

The well-rested brain does a great job in screening and filtering external stimuli – such as sounds, sights and smells and then proceeds to produce a considered response.

In an over-tired brain, the ability to screen these inputs fails, and we end up in sensory overload: everything becomes too much for us to process in a rational fashion.

This may cause us to imagine things, even objects, that don’t really exist.

7.  Reduction of Attention And Focus

When we suffer from sleep deprivation, brain activity related to being able to keep attention and focus lapses.

All of us have come across people whose heads appear to be in the clouds on occasions.  They may just be dreamers but they could also just suffer from a  case of sleep deprivation.

8. Acute Binges

Loss of sleep corresponds with loss of activity in the frontal lobe of the brain which controls rational decision-making.

At the same time, the activity of the Amygdala is heightened, leading to stronger emotional responses.  Together, these responses reduce our ability to keep control over our urges – whatever they are.

Have you ever felt that you could eat your own arm or devour a whole cake in one go?  Lack of sleep could be the reason.

Research has also shown that lack of sleep can affect body weight.  It does this by changing the levels of two critical hormones (leptin and ghrelin) that control feelings of hunger and fullness. Sleep deprivation also triggers the release of insulin, which leads to increased fat storage and a higher risk of type 2 diabetes.

9. Risky Decision-Making

When we are sleep-deprived, our normal functions in the prefrontal cortex of the brain related to motivation and reward become slow and tangled.  As a result, we have an increased tendency to make more rash and potentially risky decisions, without sufficiently considering the consequences.

10. Cerebral Shrinkage

Another key finding by this research was that healthy adults with a regular history of sleep deprivation appear to experience a degree of shrinkage in critical parts of the brain.  There seems to be an ongoing debate whether it is the sleep deprivation causing the brain shrinkage, or the brain shrinkage that causes the sleep deprivation.  Further research will be required to clarify this question.

11. Brain Damage

Last but not least is that sleep deprivation can actually damage to the brain.  This seems to be particularly associated with  “all-nighters” – when you get no sleep at all due a number of reasons.  Most people will have experienced this at one or other time during their life.  The resulting physical damage seems to affect in particular the brain stem, the oldest part of our brains.

The following infographic summarises the 11 side effects of sleep deprivation on different parts of the brain described above.


Other Effects Of Lack Of Sleep On The Body

Lack of sleep can also have serious effects on other parts of the body and key functions such as inflammation, immunity and heart health.

For example, science documents that T-cells – key fighters in immune system arsenal – go down during prolonged sleep deprivation.  At the same time, inflammatory chemicals rise, with corresponding adverse effects on health conditions as heart disease and arthritis, and our ability to fight off colds and the flu.

It is also very significant that while 7 hours of sleep each night increase our overall survival chances,  sleeping on average less than 6 hours appears to increase our risk of dying.

What Counts As Sleep Deprivation?

For many of us, lack of sleep can be a chronic problem.  Everyday stress and responsibilities, as well as too much screen time, can easily cut into the daily sleep our bodies and minds need.

The amount of sleep required by healthy adults to function well on a day-to-day basis ranges between 7 to 9 hours.  Children and teens need considerably more than that due to their developing bodies and brains.

The need for sleep decreases with age, but even older people require a minimum of 7-8 hours of sleep per night in order to maintain good health and brain function.

How Much Sleep Do We Actually Get?

The National Institute of Health reports that the average adult sleeps less than 7 hours per night, with only about 30% getting sufficient sleep on a regular basis.

There are many reasons for this – whether it’s our busy schedules, the many demands placed on us, too much coffee, screen time or partying, or simply our inability to fall or stay asleep.

As a result, making do with less sleep easily becomes a normal state of affairs.  Many people argue that this is enough – or has to be enough – and that they function perfectly well with this amount of sleep.

However, the cumulative effects of sleep deprivation can have serious effects on the health of our bodies and brains, as described above.

The Benefits Of A Good Night’s Sleep On The Body At Large

Most of us know that we feel a lot better after a full and good night’s sleep.

Overall, we tend to underestimate how much good sleep is essential to our bodies and brains.  We also tend to forget that a good night’s sleep has tremendous beneficial effects.  This includes improved mood, levels of energy, mental sharpness, resilience and ability to handle stress.

Just check this out:  during times of sleep, heart rate and blood pressure drop.  The digestive system gets a break, human growth hormones are produced, and the immune system is activated.  Our body gets a true rest and a chance to put things back into balance.  Good sleep even promotes weight loss!

Yoga is one of the ways to help you get a better night’s sleep.  Check out our article on Savasana or Yoga meditation that can be helpful in this context – especially if done before you go to bed.

The benefits of a good night's sleep